To be honest I'm not sure why UCLA was ranked in the top 20 in the preseason in both major polls. You'd have to ask the pollsters about that. Apparently they saw something in the Bruins that other observers did not.
So in one sense the fact that Ben Howland's team is nowhere to be seen in the polls as the Bruins open Pac-12 play isn't really a surprise, or at least it shouldn't be. But the route that UCLA has traveled to reach this particular destination is one that even the most astute observer could never have foreseen. In a year where their arena, Pauley Pavilion, is unavailable as it undergoes major renovations, Howland's homeless team is 7-5. Unless something changes abruptly and dramatically, this team isn't going to make the NCAA tournament. They will instead most likely finish somewhere around .500 in Pac-12 play in a season when the conference, like the Bruins, is failing to live up to expectations.
How did this happen? And what happens next?
Your eyes do not deceive you, the Bruins have really struggled.
One method I use occasionally to evaluate a given team is to look at how they've fared against opponents from the nation's
top 14 conferences. Ordinarily this corrects for statistical inflation and gives me a much more realistic view of how well a major-conference team is likely to do against the teams in its league. But if I run UCLA through this exercise I actually toss out one of the Bruins' worst losses, their 86-66 defeat at the hands of Middle Tennessee State at the L.A. Sports Arena on November 15.
Nevertheless, there's still much to be learned from looking at how UCLA has performed in its 2-4 run against "quality" opponents. Howland's team has been outscored by those opponents by 0.06 points for every possession they've played, a level of performance that was displayed by a team like Oregon in Pac-10 play last year. (Remember the Pac-10?) In 371 possessions of basketball against quality opposition, UCLA's been what can only be termed awful from the field, making just 44 percent of their frequent twos and 33 percent of their very rare threes. In fact the poor shooting's been remarkably consistent, as the Bruins have recorded an effective FG percentage between 42 and 48 in all six of these games.
UCLA's scoring isn't necessarily coming from scorers.
Howland's leading scorer is 6-1 senior Lazeric Jones, a Chicago product who arrived in Westwood last year as a transfer from John A. Logan College. Jones and 6-10 sophomore Travis Wear carry most of the load in the Bruins' offense, and they should. Their shots go in more often than do those of many of their teammates. But neither player is someone that keeps opposing coaches up nights figuring out how to "stop" them. Right now it appears that a merely average level of defense against UCLA will yield big returns for opponents in 2012.
No one can say Howland doesn't attract talent. Now he needs to retain it.
You could create an outstanding team with the players UCLA has signed over the past few years. An imaginary roster like that would include not only a recent departure like Reeves Nelson and last year's early NBA entrants (Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee), but also transfers like Mike Moser (UNLV), Chace Stanback (likewise), and Matt Carlino (BYU). Oh, and Jones, Wear, and Joshua Smith would be available too -- let's not forget the players who actually stuck around in Westwood. So clearly Howland has no problem attracting talent. But when it comes to retaining and replacing that talent, the Bruins have not been as fortunate. Seen in this light the concern with a stellar 2012 recruit like Kyle Anderson is simply whether or not he'll still be wearing a UCLA uniform when he lives up to his high expectations.
The wait for Joshua Smith to become DeJuan Blair continues.
It seems like it's not an official UCLA season until a Bruin enters the draft "a year early." The next player in that line may well be Smith, who's currently lurking in the 30s on reputable mock draft boards. The NBA looks at Smith and sees a 6-10 sophomore who rips down and amazing percentage of the available offensive rebounds while he's in the game. Howland, on the other hand, likely looks at Smith and sees a 305-pound (well, that's his listed weight anyway) sophomore who's not in the game often enough because of questionable conditioning and an amazing number of fouls committed (seven for every 40 minutes he plays). For a long while now we've heard that Smith's getting in shape and learning how to play defense without fouling. If that ever actually takes place, much of what I've written here will need revising because at that point UCLA will have a legitimate and indeed fearsome scoring threat. Meantime, that wait continues.
The Bruins open Pac-12 play with the toughest two-game stretch the league has to offer: road games against Stanford and California. So even though an 0-2 start in-conference wouldn't necessarily be a surprise, it could well trigger more grumbling about this under-performing group. On the other hand a win in either game would be a bigger deal than commonly realized. So join me in watching to see how Howland's team fares this weekend. UCLA's performance over their next 80 minutes could tell us a lot about whether the pollsters were right to see something in this team in the preseason after all.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.